T’oegye’s Sôngnihak and Survival in the 21st Century

by: Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

  International Conference on T'oegye and the 21st Century, Andong, Korea, September 1998

T’oegye’s Sôngnihak and Survival in the 21st Century. 1

Introduction. 1

Sôngnihak. 1

Modernity and the Rise of a New Sôngnihak. 3

T’oegye and the New Sôngnihak: Survival in the 21st Century. 4

Conclusion. 6


The title of this paper is “T’oegye’s sôngnihak (Chinese hsing-li hsüeh) and Survival in the 21st Century.” Between T’oegye and the 21st Century there lies a long stretch of history jam packed with major changes both in the world of nature and the world of human affairs. In most ways of conceiving it, there is a vast discontinuity between the world of T’oegye and the world of the coming century. Humans make their living in occupations and institutions beyond imagining back in the heyday of T’oegye and sôngnihak, and genetic engineering, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and heavy machinary change the world of nature around us. But the fundamental situation is not that different, as is evident from the fact that, for all the new ways of sustaining or killing, the biology of being alive or of dying for plants, animals, and humans, is pretty much the same now as it was for T’oegye. Survival then, now, and in the future, is a question that weaves life into a single interdependent pattern in spite of the ever-changing face of time.

But sôngnihak belongs to the ever-shifting level of human world views: it is one among the many temporally and culturally conditioned understandings of what this world is, who we are, and what we are doing here. In the period between T’oegye and the 21st century lie the development of modern industrial society, a capitalist economic system, global markets, and more. The world view that has ushered in these developments is largely western in origen and is often described as “modern.” This modernity in the last century has definitively replaced sôngnihak understandings of the world and of humans in Korea and throughout East Asia.

The changing of world views, however, is not a matter of simple, progressive change and replacement. We try to understand our world, and daily renew that understanding, in a ceaseless interaction bound up with our well-being: even the world of ideas is ultimately circumscribed by the fundamental life-process of survival. Increasingly, first in the economically more advanced nations and especially among the young, the massive extinction of species caused by the toxic products and incredible rate of change that go with modern life, is starting to undermine the modern world view: even our own survival seems to be in question. The new views that are emerging shift their focus from the physical sciences to the life sciences; the animating concern is not the typical modern drive to increase material production, but a new and anxious concern understand and sustain the web of life on the earth. Politically the new view is manifest in the growing power of an international environmental movement; personally and spiritually it takes the form of a new kind of hunger in people to feel once again an integral, life-giving relationship with the earth.

There are deep formal similarities between this emerging, life-centered, post-modern view and the pre-modern world of sôngnihak. So much is this the case, that by the end of this paper, once the connections have been described, I find it easy to refer to the emerging view as the “new sôngnihak.” The new sôngnihak is rooted in contemporary developments and will be a major factor in 21st century life; it does not depend on the old sôngnihak. Indeed, only a few people have considered the connection.1 But the old sôngnihak of T’oegye’s world was a mature and profound vision developed through centuries of devoted reflection and practice. It is a fertile resource from which the new sôngnihak could learn much. In the latter part of this paper I essay to describe and exemplify the translation process by which the sôngnihak of T’oegye’s world could find a voice to speak to the concerns and needs of the post-modern generations of the next century.


In T’oegye’s era the attempt to understand the meaning of existence on a profound level was called by Confucians sôngnihak, literally “the study of the nature and of principle.” The question of how sông (the nature) and i (principle or pattern) became so central to T’oegye and his contemporaries, and to Chu Hsi and his fellow Sung dynasty Neo-Confucians in China several centuries earlier, one must go back to Mencius. After Confucius, Mencius was the second great formative influence on classical Confucian tradition, and it was he who moved the term sông into a central place in Confucian thought. The fundamental Confucian thinking about sông was shaped in the course of an argument over whether the inborn dispositions or tendencies (i.e. nature) of humans is fundamentally good, neutral, or evil. Mencius, with his famous story of the baby about to fall into a well, argued for the fundamental goodness of human nature. Who, he asks, seeing a little baby about to crawl over the edge of a well, will not spontaneously respond with a feeling of alarm and a movement to save it? Granted secondary motivations can enter in and disrupt that tendency, but, he argued, the tendency is there, deep and definitive in what it means to be a human being.

In response to the observation that some people give little or no evidence of any such compassion or urge to preserve life, Mencius introduced another story that was to have equal or greater importance for the Neo-Confucian world view. Look at barren Cow Mountain, he said: everyone thinks that’s just the way it is naturally. But originally it was covered with trees, bushes, and grass. Being near town, however, woodcutters chopped and herdsmen pastured their animals until it was stripped bare. In the quiet of night a life-giving force moves thoughout to restore and heal the damaged vegetation, but when continually more destruction goes on in the day than the night can heal, the barren landscape is the result. But originally, in the deepest nature of things, barrenness is not the mountain’s natural condition.  The same goes for humans, he argued. Their life-giving nature gets bent and constrained through negative interactions during the day. The quiet of night brings a natural healing and restores them, but when it is continuously outbalanced by daily negativity, the human landscape likewise becomes barren and shows little sign of what is really there at the deepest level.

The story of barren Cow Mountain is a simile introduced to defend and argue the Mencian proposition that human nature is fundamentally good. But it is a powerful argument only in the context of assumptions it makes, assumptions which in one form or another became deeply embedded in East Asian thinking. The first assumption is about the dynamic, life-giving character of the world or cosmos. Given a chance, life will be supported. The classic Book of Changes, in a passage much used by Neo-Confucians, defined the ceaseless process of endlessly producing life (saeng-saeng) as “the mind of Heaven and Earth,” that is, the fundamental disposition of the universe. The second assumption is that as it goes with the universe, so it goes with man, whose place is totally within the pattern of the universe. Thus the life-givingness in human nature is just a manifestation of the general life-givingness of the cosmic process, a manifestation on the human level of something that runs through everything. A third assumption, present in both the other assumptions, is that life itself is somehow fundamental to the cosmos. It is no accident that ki, the term that eventually philosophically designates the concretizing and energizing stuff of all existence, is also the Chinese character for the breath or energy of life.

The Cow Mountain story is a powerful description of the process by which fundamentally good people get bent so their life-giving nature is not evident, but philosophically it is somewhat limited. The problem is that it explains the distortion or blocking up of our fundamental life-givingness only in terms of external factors, the negativity of messed up social relations. But that somewhat begs the question, for what is it that causes social relations to be messed up in the first place? Confucians were always sure that the fundamental answer to that question had something to do with various forms of inappropriate self-centeredness. But again, pointing to selfishness as the problem does not really philosophically explain what makes us selfish in the first place, especially if our deepest nature is to be life-giving.

It was Sung dynasty Neo-Confucians who finally developed a philosophical answer to that question. The early Neo-Confucian thinker Chang Tsai (1020-1077) came up with the fundamental notion: we each have a psychophysical constitution or “nature” comprised of the concrete, energizing stuff (ki) of which we are made. This psychophysical nature (kijil chi sông) is subject to varying degrees of purity or turbidity, which accordingly introduce less or more distortion into our naturally appropriate, life-giving responsiveness. Perfectly pure ki allows perfect, in-touch integration with our situation and perfect responsiveness to it; very turbid ki blocks us up in a self-enclosed, cut off kind of existence in which naturally life-giving responses consistently get turned in a selfish, self-serving direction.

While Chang Tsai’s theory of the psychophysical nature finally explained the type of distortion observed by Mencius, it also transformed the Mencian view in problematic ways. From Mencius’ fundamentally life-giving cosmos, we move into one in which ki, the living, energizing stuff of the cosmos itself, can be either the vehicle of the life-giving flow patterned into our natures, or a hindrance to it. What then of that original life-giving disposition Mencius saw in both the cosmos and in human beings? Here Neo-Confucians elaborated the concept of i, a kind of patterning principle forming, shaping, directing the energetic ki component. This i, in many ways synonymous with the more traditional term to (Chin. tao), constitutes the “original nature (ponsông),” the deepest, most fundamental level of ineradicable goodness or life-givingness which Mencius described.

In the Neo-Confucian context, then, the term i points to the most fundamental disposition or character of the universe, while sông, the nature, is somewhat problematically divided between its association with ki as the psychophysical nature, and its identification with i as the original nature. Understanding the meaning and background of these terms, one can see how sôngnihak, “the study of the nature and of principle,” would designate for Neo-Confucians the inquiry into the most profound meaning of life and the world. But while they intended to move Mencius’ vision to a higher level of philosophical adequacy, the Neo-Confucian introduction of the i ki framework was in many ways a new, more complex world view. It brought difficult questions of theory and practice of a sort Mencius could never have imagined.

Prominent among the new questions were the difficult issues worked over in the Four-Seven debate, the 16th century Korean controversy which left a deep and lasting imprint upon Korean sôngnihak. The best philosophical approach to the new i ki framework was to ascribe strictly complementary interdependent roles to each. If i was exclusively for formation or guidance, but all energizing or concreteness came from the side of ki, they could be “two and yet one, one and yet two,” “inseparable but not admixed.” These delicate formulas were meant to help avoid two unacceptable alternatives: a dualism of good (i) versus evil (ki) on the one hand, or on the other a monism in which lifegiving i would become inextricably entwined with the very source of the tendencies which block it up (ki).

The Four Seven debate used these formulas as guideposts in probing the relation of two sets of feelings that might be easily thought of as having different relations to i and ki. Mencius in describing the life-giving goodness of human nature had described four feelings or the “four beginnings” as proto-manifestations of that fundamental lifegivingness. Two sets of feelings, one associated with the Mencian good nature (i), and the other with the human tendency to go astray (ki) could easily tear the interdependent complementary of i and ki into an untenable dualism. In the modern era the debate is considered the height of arcane philosophical hair-splitting, but in truth few questions could pry more deeply into the viability of the Neo-Confucian synthesis.  In particular, in the context of the i ki framework, could the reality of the pure life-giving thrust Mencius saw in things be preserved, or would it necessarily be subjected to ineffective dependence upon the condition of the psychophysical endowment? T’oegye’s creative formula for the four beginnings, “i issues and ki follows it,” and for the seven feelings as, “ki issues and i mounts it,” carved out a place for the Mencian insight, but opponents argued that this undermined the perfect complementary of i and ki.

T’oegye occupies a position of great honor and achievement in the world of sôngnihak. Whether one agrees with his position in the Four-Seven debate or not, after that debate there were new dimensions to the question of the nature and the understanding of principle. But though his name is still honored, there are few nowadays who understand his accomplishment. T’oegye reshaped a world of thought and understanding, but the world he reshaped is no longer with us. Sôngnihak is now matter for the historians; it has been long replaced, overrun by modernity.

Modernity and the Rise of a New Sôngnihak

As our powers to change the world of nature have increased throughout the modern era, we have been focussed on maximizing human well-being, and that fixed our attention mainly on economic progress. But without intending it, our economic process has put other life forms on this planet increasingly at risk. When our power was less, life simply went on--though the history of human caused extinctions goes back thousands of years. But now through mechanical and electronic technology our power is such that if basic life systems are to remain at all, it will depend upon deliberate human decisions and policies. If we continue to follow profit-maximizing policies, rainforests will disappear, the great fishing grounds of the oceans will collapse, and industrial agriculture will substitute chemical-dependent crops for most of the diverse plant life of the earth. But as that happens, the air we breath, the ground we walk on, the living soil under our feet and even the weather we experience will all change. Before such fundamental changes have gone very far, our attention will be riveted on life processes, and on how to correct the damage we have done. Already as we enter the 21st century there is growing awareness that our own survival cannot be disentangled from the larger system of life to which we belong.

Traditional sôngnihak asked about the pattern   of all things, in particular about the nature (sông) of human beings, and how we should live in terms of these patterns. Similar questions are being asked today as new forms of knowledge have made us aware of how our conduct is able to destroy lifegiving ecosystems and ultimately even put our own survival in question. How are we to understand the patterned flow of life in ecosystems? What is our nature, our place in relation to this larger life system? How can we have a life-giving place, rather than causing such destruction that the patterned interactions of the natural world can no longer sustain life? These are the contemporary questions about our deepest nature and how it fits into the life pattern of the earth, a new kind of sôngnihak.

When we think of Mencius’ description of an organic life force flowing through both the vegetation of Cow Mountain and the stressed minds and hearts of human beings, it is easy to see the similarity with the new awareness that all life, including human life, exists in the interdependent patterned flow of energy in a single system. And it is not difficult to identify the Neo-Confucian search for a perfect life-giving responsiveness, a fit with the great pattern, as having the same spirit as our own search. These similarities point to a deep compatibility in the formal structures or assumptions of the new sôngnihak and ancient Confucian tradition. But we would misunderstand badly if we took such similarities at face value. The formal structural similarities are signs of potential connections and wonderfuly synergies between the new and the old, but in important ways the new is quite different from the old sôngnihak or the even more ancient vision of Mencius. Before we can understand how the new can benefit from the old, we must understand how it is different from the old.

If we consider carefully the circumstances in which Mencius introduced his vision of a life-giving universe, the thinkers of the Southern Sung dynasty dressed it in the new, sophisticated i  ki metaphysics, or the contemporary world turns its attention anxiously to the complex patterned lifeflow of ecosystems, we find each development addressed to different basic questions--though even the three questions have a vital relationship. Mencius concern with the description of human nature was deeply related to his approach to government and public policy issues, the burning topic of his time. We see even now in our social welfare or crime policy debates how disparate assumptions about human nature drive radically different policy recommendations. The Neo-Confucian revival movement was deeply influenced by the experience of major divisive and unproductive conflicts in the realm of political policy during the Northern Sung, as well as by the sophistication of Buddhist cultivation technique and the attractiveness of its promise of enlightenment. Thus when the Southern Sung Neo-Confucians revitalized the Confucian tradition, their attention was largely focused on questions of self-cultivation: the new i ki metaphysics provided an anthropo-cosmic framework for describing how one could actually cultivate sagehood. They assumed from high spiritual attainment wise public policy would follow.

For Mencius the widely recognized life-givingness of the earth or universe served as a springboard for pronouncements about human nature. The Neo-Confucians were concerned to articulate the cosmic-human patterned connection in order to describe how the perfect responsiveness of the sage could be attained. But contemporary eyes turn to this patterned connection with, for the first time, fundamental concern for sustaining life itself. Instead of being a backdrop for understanding life-giving relationships among humans in society, the patterned, interdependent life exchanges of ecosystems have now become the direct focus and center of investigation and concern. But now, because the life system itself seems imperiled, there is intense concern as well with public policy, and likewise a deep feeling that somehow human beings must cultivate themselves in terms of a new self-understanding as belonging to the life system they imperil. Here one senses the possibility of a vital connection and contribution that the Mencian-sôngnihak heritage could make, for they represent perhaps the most prolonged and intensive deposit of human attention addressed to public policy and self-cultivation within a similar framework.

Before that connection and contribution can be made, however, we must understand the newness of the critical issue, survival--first of the many lifeforms we now endanger, and ultimately, of humans, who also belong to the web of interdependent species--that animates the new sôngnihak. The question did not arise, could not arise, in the same way in the framework of the i ki universe. That life emerges naturally from the stuff of the universe (ki) is an old assumption that is now also a new cutting edge theory: as physical and life sciences advance in a new understanding of self-organizing complex systems, a number of scientists now believe in our kind of universe life is virtually inevitable.2 But the inevitability of life is different from the permanence of any given form of life, such as humans. And here, the Neo-Confucian i carries assumptions that would make it almost impossible to imagine or take seriously the question of radical sustainability or survival.

The Neo-Confucian i is a relatively fixed pattern of the naturally harmonious life-giving relations of everything in the universe. Evolution might even be fit into such a pattern, but evolution was not its point: the point of i was to explain how all natures are one Nature, how everything is at once itself and yet its nature is also the one all-encompassing Supreme Ultimate. This is the metaphysics of responsiveness. How can creatures respond properly to the many kinds and varieties of fellow creatures and circumstances that surround them? A single pattern combines them all, so each individual nature works in terms of all the others. But the concern in this formulation is not so much the workings of the natural world as the workings of the human mind. The important point was that humans possess the active fullness of i as the substance of their minds. Since this i includes all things, if we only cultivate ourselves to remove distorting forces, we will find in the depths of our being a source of spontaneous proper responsiveness to all things. This describes traditional sagehood in terms that refer to the structure of our inner life and hence can be translated into the actual practice of self-cultivation. We can understand the ideal put forth in the classic Doctrine of the Mean, that perfect cultivation of the human mind-and-heart will enable us to “bring about the nurture of all things.”3

The new sôngnihak is concerned with ecosystems in which many kinds of creatures are woven together in an interdependent, patterned web of life. It probes with the tools of ecological science and evolutionary biology to understand how this harmonious interdependence arose and is maintained. It seeks a detailed understanding of the exchanges of the energy of life that go on in this web, and the way they affect reproduction and so propagate and continue the life system. What comes from this investigation is an understanding of how, over periods of millions of years, patterns of interdependence evolve and change. Because each creature, generation after generation, must survive by fitting into the surroundings in which it is born, in a sense the pattern of those surroundings is prefigured in the genes transmitted from parents to children. Our genetic recipe includes lungs because there was oxygen-rich air that enabled our parents with lungs to live long enough to give birth to us. Thus the pattern of my genes includes oxygen by giving me lungs: what worked for my parents is passed on to me. The same goes for certain kinds of food supplies, abilities to get that food, escape certain kinds of predators etc. In this way the pattern of a whole environment is imprinted in the genes of each living creature within it. Like the Neo-Confucian i, in a sense the whole pattern of an ecosystem is contained within the genetic pattern of each of its members.

This new approach gives us insight into the wonderful dance of life, but it also brings out questions of time, change, and vulnerability in ways entirely different from the Neo-Confucian contemplation of patterns of life-giving responsiveness. We know that life on earth has been evolving, slowly changing over a period of more than 3.5 billion years. During that time there have been both gradual and sudden changes in sources and types of life-giving energy and life destroying dangers. The patterns that worked as life-giving responses at one time do not work when things have changed too much: thus we also know that of all the kinds of creatures that have evolved over this 3.5 billion years, more than 99% are now extinct. To an extent not imagined under any traditional world view, the message is clear: no one kind of creature, no one pattern, is permanently in a life-giving and life-supporting relationship with the earth. If change is too rapid, widespread, or happens to hit a particularly important element of the patterned dependence written into a creature’s genes, there is no possibility of a life-sustaining response, and the result is extinction.

Scientists estimate that on average species are successful for about 100 million years before changing circumstances forces their extinction. We humans are now changing the circumstances of the earth so rapidly that it is estimated that every hour another species disappears forever. This is a wave of change and death so great that it raises real concerns about total collapse of this ecosystem, not unlike the collapse of the ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs for 160 million years. Humans have been here less than 4 million years. We desperately search for a more life-giving fit with the ecology, the life pattern of this age of earth. We now know that nurturing the life of all things is key not only to full human spiritual development, but even to our continued physical life and viability as a species. This is the concern of the new sôngnihak.

Debates about public policy now surround these new questions. It seems very likely that the global environmental situation will worsen, and as it does these questions will become more central in the consciousness of the 21st century. At the same time increasing numbers of people are anxious to understand how to spiritually cultivate themselves in terms of ecological concerns, to feel once again integrated into and in contact with the life of the earth. The new sôngnihak does not need the ancient cosmology of i and ki: it is better to let the modern scientific study of biology and ecology play that role. But it desperately needs the wisdom regarding life-giving values and spiritual cultivation that was the special strength and focus of sôngnihak.

T’oegye and the New Sôngnihak: Survival in the 21st Century

How can one connect the wisdom of men like T’oegye, giants of the sôngnihak spiritual tradition, with the thirst for a new way of connecting human nature with the living pattern of the earth? The issues men like T’oegye debated were real and profound human issues, and the spiritual paths they developed met deep and real human needs. But the language, the cosmology and spirituality worked out in terms of i and ki, no longer communicates anything meaningful to a world that thinks in terms of modern science. We must go beyond the language they spoke to recover the shape of the deeper questions they were addressing, and translate not only the questions, but their wisdom, into the language of our own times.

Take, for example, T’oegye’s position in the Four-Seven debate. In the case of the Four Beginnings, “i issues and ki follows it.” “Four Beginnings” was Mencius’ way of describing the deepest human tendency to foster and preserve life. We see this tendency at work today both in concern with human rights and criticism about the way we mistreat each other, and also in fights against whaling, the attempt to save the rainforests, or the outlawing of drift nets. All of this is the contemporary version of Mencius’ baby about to fall into the well, and it is such matters that are the issue in T’oegye’s i ki formulation of the Four Beginnings. Speaking of them as issuing from i is here just another way of saying that these deep feelings are basically trustworthy, something one can build safely on: we know, because life-giving concern (i) is in the lead.

Then how about the Seven Feelings, where “ki issues and i mounts it?” Ki here really points to the behavior of all of us as concrete individuals who must take care of ourselves and preserve our own lives. The Seven Feelings are tendencies, like desire, fear, pleasure or anger, that help us take care of ourselves. When i, a broader regard for life, is the guiding force (“mounts it”), these feelings also help us take care of other beings. The environmental movement, for example, is full of desire, fear, and anger. But it is also clear such feelings are also more dangerous, more likely to lead to harm than are the feelings that make us want to keep things alive. The modern economy is largely a ki, Seven Feelings centered-kind of world. Through it we do the necessary task of maintaining our lives, but it is also likely to make us competitive and interested in maximizing our own advantage without regard for others. We thus become cut off from our fellow humans and even more so from other forms of life, which we see only through the eyes of self-interest. Advertising is a powerful force that plays on the Seven Feelings to make us consume more and more, and in the process leads down the path to ignoring and destroying the life around us.

It is easy to see that now, as in T’oegye’s time, there is a real difference between the Four Beginnings and Seven Feelings, and it is critically important to understand the difference. It is also noteworthy that the overwhelming push of the modern world and its focus on economic prosperity has been a process that amounts to maximizing the Seven Feelings. This is not automatically bad, but it would make T’oegye very uneasy, and it should make thoughtful people today uneasy as well. Where T’oegye’s sôngnihak worked against the self-centeredness easily associated with the Seven Feelings, the new sôngnihak notes the anthropo-centeredness as well.

Real life involves great complexity. Even knowing in general that one wants to promote life, the questions easily become tangled and unclear when we are faced with conflicts and some life values must be saved by sacrificing others. There are few automatic, easy answers, and many situations require a sense of values matured by long and deep reflection. Neo-Confucians called this process of maturing and deepening our understanding the “investigation of things,” or “exhaustively investigating i.” The old sôngnihak focused on matters such as filial piety and other elements oflife-giving  human relationships. The new sôngnihak studies as well the actual patterns and processes that keep the diverse lifeforms of ecosystems alive. But as T’oegye and other Neo-Confucians made clear, the meaning of “the investigation of things” is not just objective knowledge, but personal commitment to following the lifegiving paths or patterns that are thus revealed. The modern scientific study of life systems, and particularly of genetics, has been deeply ambiguous; easily the lure of commercial profit through manipulating genetic patterns to increase human convenience leads in directions that could have grave ecological consequences. Our growing knowledge about the pattern of life will be secure only when it is joined with the kind of personal commitment to life-giving values demanded by “the investigation of things.”

The commitment to life-giving values in the life of study was indicated clearly when Neo-Confucians explained the phrase in the Great Learning, “the investigation of things,” as meaning “the investigation of the i of things.” On the other hand, if one were to consider the major thrust of the modern investigation of things, the great weight seems devoted to what in Neo-Confucian terms would be the investigation of ki, the development of newer and better mechanical means to better our material living-conditions. In the absence of a balanced commitment to understanding and fostering life, this has turned out to be a surprisingly deadly form of learning. It has enhanced our power to bring about great change, but separate from the investigation of i, it has not given us the ability to use that power in a life-giving way.

Finally there is the question of how to form and shape ourselves into the kind of persons who give life to our community and our environment. The old sôngnihak included a highly developed simhak, or what is called nowadays spiritual practice. What is most profound in human nature? Modern economic theory tells us the answer is self-interest, for it views that as the most fundamental motive power that makes the economy run. Sôngnihak taught something called “quiet-sitting,” a meditation technique. The sôngnihak assumption was that if we deeply calm and clarify the turbulence of our busy, self-concerned minds, we find in the depths of the human self a living connection with everything around. Being connected, we are able to respond appropriately in a life-giving way; experiencing and feeling the connection beyond our small self-concerned consciousness, we are motivated to respond in a life-giving way. That was the meaning of “nurturing oneself in union with one’s nature,” the practical fruit of describing our nature, sông, as identical with i, the living pattern connecting us with everything.

This is where sôngnihak, the “study of the nature and principle,” is meant to lead. For those today looking for a deeper, felt and lived sense of union with the living earth to which we belong, there could hardly be a better practice. It is especially urgent, in the extremely busy and distracted context of modern urban life, to introduce some element of deep quietness. For without quietness, a sort of shallowness seems to take over, and we end up with a lifestyle in which the modern version of the Seven Feelings, which are constantly fed and stimulated by advertizing and the media, occupy a major part of conscious life.

Of course the point is to extend this inner quietness from meditation to all the activities of life. T’oegye used the single term kyông, a kind of mindful, self-possessed awareness, to cover both the quiet meditative practice and its manifestation in active life. This was a difficult practice for active officials even in T’oegye’s day; that is one reason he felt his really worthwhile life began only when he finally retired and could lead a much more quiet, reflective life. In the intense hurry of a modern city such as Seoul or New York, it is much more difficult to keep a quiet, possessed mind. For many people, it would be far better for both physical and spiritual health to live in quieter places. Our society may glorify fast-paced excitement; but then, perhaps our society and the pace it moves at are, judged by deeper standards of what is life-giving, rather insane. Certainly the pace of consumption, waste, and toxic production that goes with the fast, mindless lifestyle, is killing our ecosystems as well as our human spiritual systems. Slowing down enough to cultivate our own life-connected consciousness may be the most basic change we can make.

The above is meant to illustrate how natural it is to relate or translate the old sôngnihak of Chu Hsi and T’oegye to the modern sôngnihak of those concerned with what is happening to the web of life on planet earth. This is not a matter of imagining what T’oegye would say if he were alive today. It is rather repeating what he did say, only in the language and context of our day. Studying T’oegye is not the only way to understand such things. Many people are reaching similiar conclusions and saying similar things around the world simply because in present circumstances we are coming to see that they are true and important. But for those who have access to the old sôngnihak heritage, there is a wealth of wise insight and understanding about living in a life-giving way in this world. Such accumulated wisdom is not easily reinvented overnight as we moderns ask anew questions about human nature and how we fit into the interwoven patterns of life that surround us and support us. This modern sôngnihak can still learn much from the old sôngnihak.


Those who have heard or read this paper may feel that it is strongly advocating a certain set of values and is not much like an objective, scholarly study of T’oegye or sôngnihak. Maybe it sounds more like an ecological sermon. But I would suggest that any true “translation” of T’oegye’s sôngnihak would sound like a sermon. For T’oegye and other outstanding sôngnihak scholars were deeply committed to values, and they preached those values one way or another in virtually everything they wrote. Seeming talk about the universe becomes talk about human nature and human responsiveness in relationships, and that becomes talk about modes of study, reflection, and spiritual practice that will refine the appropriate responsiveness. There is no question that the issues of proper human conduct were matters of life-and-death urgency for these men, and not a few actually gave their lives in the cause. The only difference is that in those days the questions were mainly in the context of human society. Now the system of life, with its many imperiled species, is raising the question to us with a new scope and an unparalleled urgency.

The new sôngnihak is if anything made weightier than the old by our deeper understanding of the actual life-supporting patterns of interconnected ecosystems. We can see challenges of life and death in dimensions never known before, and the response around the world is increasingly just what Mencius predicted about the baby in danger of falling into the well: we feel alarm, and a desire to save. The Four Beginnings are alive and well, and we are fortunate to have the heritage of T’oegye and other sôngnihak masters to help us understand how to cultivate and nurture them to the fullness we need now more than ever before.

1  See Confucianism and Ecology, (Cambridge, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions, 1998).


  See for example, Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, (NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).


  Doctrine of the Mean, ch. 1.